|30 Palm Sunday - April 1, 2007|
In the Church, we enter into the story of the bible. The story of the bible tells us the history of the human spirit. It is a history of glorious possibilities cut off because of deceit and murder. It begins with the murder of Abel at the hands of his own brother, Cain. It is consummated in the murder of the Son of God. His own received him not. Instead, they put to death on the cross the Innocent One as a common criminal.
It seems to be common wisdom that the history of mankind is reflected in the life of each one of us. Therefore, when in the Church we enter into the story of the bible, we are coming upon the spiritual roots of our own individual and family stories. We discover that our individual stories are part of a much larger story: the story of the bible, the story of God and the world. We therefore read the biblical story as our own spiritual story; and, we see that each one of us is called to a destiny of something much larger than our individual life that begins and ends here in this world.
As the story of lost glory, the biblical story of the human spirit is bitter and tragic. Yet, there is hope and the promise of joy; but a joy that is hard won, sobering, leaving no room for sentimentality.
The prophets liken God’s election of Israel to a sacred marriage. But Israel plays the adultress and runs off after other lovers. The bible calls them idols; they are idols not so much because they are made of wood or stone, but because they do not represent Israel’s husband, the true God, who made heaven and earth. Idols are not icons. Icons represent the true God who became flesh and dwelt among us. Idols represent false gods to whom Israel gives her love and adoration rather than to her Bridegroom, the living God. On the deepest level, worship of an idol is the expression of self-love, because the creature in worshipping the idol is worshipping the creature and not the Creator.
According to the bible, this is our story, too. All have sinned. Every one of us has gone our own way. And, we have become servants of sin and slaves to the passions: to gluttony, lust, envy, greed, anger, sloth, jealousy, vanity, pride, despair. But here is where the plot of the biblical story begins to get not thick but very deep, and begins to take on a twist that is at once tragic and heavenly.
In the vision of the prophets, Israel’s misfortunes, the destruction of her temple, her sufferings at the hands of other nations, are the punishment of God against her for her infidelity to him. Yet, as the prophet Isaiah complains, still Israel does not turn to the Lord. So also we, even though we bring suffering upon ourselves in consequence of our choice to serve the passions, continue to give our love to sensual pleasures that bring pain. Even so, God does not deal with us as we have sinned. He sends his own Son into the world and turns his murder into the divine moment when he makes the iniquity of us all to fall upon him. The wrath of God that our deeds have called upon us God the judge visits on himself in the Person of his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
There is to be sure a profound tragedy in the murder of God at the hands of his own; but the biblical story reveals something heavenly beneath the tragedy. By ascending the Cross in the flesh, the Lord condemns sin and he pours immortality upon us all. He puts the Devil to flight, the devils’ delusions he destroys. He tramples down death by his death and gives life to those in the tombs. The gates to Paradise he opens again so that all who want to may enter and partake of the fruit that grows like a cluster of grapes from the Tree of Life.
The Cross of Christ is the power of God’s triumph over evil. Whoever takes up his cross to follow Christ enters into the victory of God over evil. We take up our cross by practicing the ways of the Church, centered on the practice of the commandments of Christ. Through the spiritual disciplines of the Church we work to give our love back to God, the heavenly Bridegroom who comes to us at Midnight. We are still far away from loving God with our whole heart, soul, strength and mind, but when we take up our Cross we are beginning to turn our mind toward Christ and we are practicing the first command that Christ gives: the command to repent. As we take up the Cross of Christ, even though we are still far away from loving God with our whole heart, soul, strength and mind, God does not deal with us as we have sinned. He makes our iniquity to fall upon himself. And as we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
The Church shows us how to take up our cross. She even helps us to do it. One should wonder if there is more to this holding of palms on Palm Sunday than lending a theatrical flair to our celebration of the Feast – because there is. Our taking up palms and pussy willows this morning is an instance of the Church showing us how to take up our Cross so that we can be united to Christ in a death like his and in a resurrection like his. If the Church is the story of the bible made incarnate and brought into our daily life here on earth, then the spiritual meaning of this rite of holding palms on Palm Sunday must be given in the bible. And so it is.
“Blessed is he that come in the Name of the Lord,” is a Messianic hymn taken from the Psalms. Note that the religious authorities who did not confess Jesus as the Son of God, but instead sought to kill him, were not singing this hymn along with the children who were waving their palms before the Lord as he rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. Indeed, the Scriptures say that they were sorely displeased. Therefore, if we are singing this hymn to the Lord Jesus we are taking a confessional stand. We are separating ourselves from all those who deny that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and we are joining ourselves with the children, confessing with them our worship of Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ. It follows that by singing this hymn from the Psalms, we are expressing our desire to receive Jesus as the Christ and to become through him a child of God, born not of the will or desire of man but of the Holy Spirit.
But one cannot receive Jesus without taking up one’s cross to follow him; that means, learning his commandments and doing them. In the Psalms, we read: “The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree: he shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon.” Holding these palms in our hands and singing this Messianic hymn from the Psalms to Jesus the Savior, we are saying to the Lord that we want to be found among the righteous who flourish like the palm tree. As we hold these palms in our hand, we are acting out the prayer: O Lord, teach me your statutes, enlighten me with your precepts; make me to understand your commandments.
The prophet Joel writes: “The vine is dried up, and the fig tree languishes; the pomegranate tree, the palm tree also, and the apple tree, [even] all the trees of the field are withered: because joy is withered away from the sons of men.” Taking up these palms in our hands, we are acknowledging that we have sinned and that because of our sins we have lost the joy that comes from God. Holding these palms in our hands can be a physical expression of our prayer to the Lord to save us, to help our unbelief, to heal us of our infirmities that keep us from doing the good, from loving the good; to restore to us the joy of his salvation.
Of course, we can just be holding these palms in our hands for no other reason than because everyone else is, with no effort to join this holding of the palms to heart-felt prayer as the bible directs us. In that case we are not entering into the story of the bible. We are standing here by ourselves, in Minneapolis. We are not entering into Jerusalem to worship the Lord who comes riding on the back of a donkey; we are not entering into the bridal chamber of our heart to give our love to the Bridegroom who comes to us at Midnight. But if we are holding these palms in our hands as a concrete expression of heart-felt prayer to God, then we are entering into the meaning of his Cross, into the spiritual reality of the biblical story, and into the spiritual depths of our own individual story.
The OT book, the Song of Songs, is a love song. In the light of the Holy Spirit, the holy fathers and mothers of the Church have seen that it is a love song of the Church or of the human soul in its purest essence for the Heavenly Bridegroom. In this hymn of The Song of Songs, Christ the Bridegroom sings out to his Bride, the Church or the human soul that has purified herself in preparation for receiving him: “How beautiful and how delightful you are, my love, with all your charms. Your stature is like to a palm tree, your breasts are like a cluster of grapes. I said, I will climb the palm tree; I will take hold of its fruit stalks. Oh, may your breasts be like clusters of the vine, and the fragrance of your breath like apples, and your mouth like the best wine.”
Holding the palms in our hands and singing out to the Savior, Hosanna, we are asking him to cleanse us from the filth of our infidelities and idolatry, and from the stench of our impurities, and to make us beautiful – to restore us to our original beauty in which he created us, to clothe us with the garment of immortality with which he clothed us in the garden. In the Bridegroom Matins, we’ll hear of this garment of immortality. It will be called the “wedding garment.” Holding the palms in our hands can be for us a prayer asking that the Lord may cleanse us so that he may take delight in us and come to us at Midnight in the bridal chamber of our heart and make us his own, that we may partake of him as of fine wine and delicious clusters of grapes.
Entering into the biblical story here in the Church, we therefore this morning take up in our hands the palms of victory while in our heart we are putting our finger to our mouth in a yearning that is beyond words. We lift our voice in song while in our secret closet we are bowing our head in a broken and contrite heart. We wave the palms of victory while in our hearts we are standing in silent prayer before him, keenly conscious of our unworthiness and marveling at the biblical witness of his great love for us even so, that he has caused the iniquity of us all to fall upon himself that he might save us and bring us into his Heavenly Kingdom.
In this vision of Palm Sunday, we enter Holy Week as into Jerusalem. We come to the services of Holy Week as an expression of our wish that the Church will help us to enter into the stillness of our soul, to help us lay hold the yearning of our heart and to direct it to the Lord, the Heavenly Bridegroom, helping us to pray that he would teach us his will, that he would show us how to die to our self-will and our self-love, how to align our will with his, so that our love may be for him, that our prayer may become that of our holy Mother, the Theotokos: “Be it done to me as thou wilt,” and that we may truly pray with Our Savior: “Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done,” that we may become truly “the prince’s daughter” and in ardent love for the Bridegroom who washes us clean with his sacred blood, that we may truly pray what Our Lord taught us to pray: “Our Father who art in heaven…Thy will be done.”
In this vision of Palm Sunday, we cross the threshold. Let us give our attention to what the Church reveals to us in her Holy Week services, that we may enter the terrible and heavenly mysteries of Holy Week as the bride walking the path in sober dread and joy to the holy bridal chamber to make herself ready to receive the Bridegroom who comes at Midnight. O Lord Jesus Christ, cleanse us from our sin and save us. Hosanna in the highest; blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord. O Lord, glory to Thee!